As House Speaker heads to court with Trump, hush money witness Cohen is testifying

  • Canadian Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s fixer−turned−foe Michael Cohen awaits a bruising round of questioning from the former president’s lawyers on Tuesday after testimony linked their celebrity client to all aspects of a hush money scheme that prosecutors say was aimed at stifling stories that threatened his 2016 campaign.

Trump, the first former U.S. president to go on trial, was joined at the courthouse by an entourage that included House Speaker Mike Johnson, who claimed the case was politically motivated by Democrats. It was a remarkable moment in American politics as the second in line to the presidency used the office’s powerful pulpit to attack the U.S. judicial system, and sought to turn his political party against the rule of law by declaring the trial illegitimate.

Trump was also joined by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Florida Reps. Byron Donalds and Cory Mills and his former GOP rival Vivek Ramaswamy. Burgum and Donalds are considered potential vice presidential contenders.

“I do have a lot of surrogates, and they’re speaking very beautifully," Trump said outside the courtroom as they stood in the background.

Their presence Tuesday as Cohen, the prosecution’s star witness, returns to the stand was a not−so−subtle show of support meant not just for Trump but also for voters tuning in from home and for the jurors who are deciding Trump’s fate.

Cohen resumed testifying Tuesday, saying he discussed the repayment plan with Trump in the Oval Office when he visited the White House in February 2017.

“I was sitting with President Trump, and he asked me if I was OK,” Cohen told jurors. “He asked me if I needed money, and I said, ‘All good’ because I can get a check.”

On Monday, Cohen delivered matter−of−fact testimony that went to the heart of the former president’s trial.

“Everything required Mr. Trump’s sign−off,” Cohen said.

He placed Trump at the center of the hush money scheme, saying he had promised to reimburse money the lawyer had fronted for the payments and was constantly apprised of the behind−the−scenes efforts to bury stories feared to be harmful to the campaign.

“We need to stop this from getting out,” Cohen quoted Trump as telling him in reference to porn actor Stormy Daniels’ account of a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier. The then−candidate was especially anxious about how the story would affect his standing with female voters.

A similar episode occurred when Cohen alerted Trump that a Playboy model was alleging that she and Trump had an extramarital affair. “Make sure it doesn’t get released,” was Cohen’s message to Trump, the lawyer said. The woman, Karen McDougal, was paid $150,000 in an arrangement that was made after Trump received a “complete and total update on everything that transpired.”

“What I was doing, I was doing at the direction of and benefit of Mr. Trump,” Cohen testified.

Trump has pleaded not guilty and has denied both sexual encounters.

Cohen is by far the prosecution’s most important witness, and though his testimony lacked the electricity that defined Daniels’ turn on the stand, he nonetheless linked Trump directly to the payments and helped illuminate some of the drier evidence such as text messages and phone logs that jurors had already seen.

The testimony of a witness with such intimate knowledge of Trump’s activities could heighten the legal exposure of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee if jurors deem him sufficiently credible. But prosecutors’ reliance on a witness with such a checkered past — Cohen pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the payments — also carries sizable risks with a jury and could be a boon to Trump politically as he fundraises off his legal woes and paints the case as the product of a tainted criminal justice system.

The men, once so close that Cohen boasted that he would “take a bullet” for Trump, had no visible interaction inside the courtroom. The sedate atmosphere was a marked contrast from their last courtroom faceoff in October, when Trump walked out of the courtroom after his lawyer finished questioning Cohen during his civil fraud trial.

This time around, Trump sat at the defense table with his eyes closed for long stretches of testimony as Cohen recounted his decade−long career as a senior Trump Organization executive, doing work that by his own admission sometimes involved lying and bullying others on his boss’s behalf.

Trump’s lawyers will get their chance to begin questioning Cohen as early as Tuesday, where they’re expected to attack his credibility — he was disbarred, went to prison and separately pleaded guilty to lying about a Moscow real estate project on Trump’s behalf — and cast him as a vindictive, agenda−driven witness. The defense told jurors during opening statements that he’s an “admitted liar” with an “obsession to get President Trump.”

Prosecutors aim to blunt those attacks by acknowledging Cohen’s past crimes to jurors and by relying on other witnesses whose accounts, they hope, will buttress his testimony.

Jurors had previously heard from others about the tabloid industry practice of “catch−and−kill,” in which rights to a story are purchased so that it can then be quashed. But Cohen’s testimony is crucial to prosecutors because of his direct communication with the then−candidate about embarrassing stories he was scrambling to suppress.

Cohen also matters because the reimbursements he received from a $130,000 hush money payment to Daniels, which prosecutors say was meant to buy her silence in advance of the election, form the basis of 34 felony counts charging Trump with falsifying business records. Prosecutors say the reimbursements were logged, falsely, as legal expenses to conceal the payments’ true purpose.

To establish Trump’s intimate familiarity with the payments, Cohen told jurors under questioning that Trump had promised to reimburse him. The two men even discussed with Allen Weisselberg, a former Trump Organization chief financial officer, how the reimbursements would be paid as legal services over monthly installments, Cohen testified.

He said Trump even sought to delay finalizing the Daniels transaction until after Election Day so he wouldn’t have to pay her.

“Because,” Cohen testified, “after the election it wouldn’t matter” to Trump.

Cohen also gave jurors an insider account of his negotiations with David Pecker, the then−publisher of the National Enquirer, who was such a close Trump ally that Pecker told Cohen his publication maintained a “file drawer or a locked drawer" where files related to Trump were kept. That effort took on added urgency following the October 2016 disclosure of an “Access Hollywood” recording in which Trump was heard boasting about grabbing women sexually.

The Daniels payment was finalized several weeks after that revelation, but Monday’s testimony also centered on a deal earlier that fall with McDougal.

To lay the foundation that the deals were done with Trump’s endorsement, prosecutors elicited testimony from Cohen designed to show Trump as a hands−on manager. Acting on Trump’s behalf, Cohen said, he sometimes lied and bullied others, including reporters.

“When he would task you with something, he would then say, ‘Keep me informed. Let me know what’s going on,’” Cohen testified. He said that was especially true “if there was a matter that was troubling to him.”

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Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.

Michael R. Sisak, Eric Tucker, Michelle L. Price And Colleen Long, The Associated Press

Photo: AP